Claustrophilia, The Vaults – Review

“Create your own narrative. Don’t let somebody else do it for you.”

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In 2014, Strawberry Blond Curls Theatre performed Inside at the Edinburgh Festival, a play about the years a schoolgirl spent in captivity and her eventual escape. Naomi Westerman’s latest play (Claustrophilia) could be interpreted as a response to this – taking a reverse tact, we meet a young woman in her early 20s who comes forward and gives an account of her life between the ages of 13 and 17 when she was kidnapped. Except Claustrophilia isn’t just about those years or about child abduction. It’s so much more…

Playing Alice, the young woman in question, Eleanor Crosswell delivers a outstanding performance as someone who on the surface is relatively well-adjusted – ‘too assured’ perhaps – but gradually  reveals small cracks in her robust sense of well-being. To begin with, Crosswell is matter-of-fact about the coping strategies as an abductee for malnutrition, toilet etiquette (when bathrooms aren’t available) and hygiene. From the off, we sense there is nothing that isn’t up for discussion…

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Eleanor Crosswell: ‘Alice’

Confidentally strolling amongst the audience as she unlocks her past, Alice gives off the air that this is what she wants, that she is charge of this event –unlike other poor souls who as ‘witnesses’ have had to disclose the most embarrassing, private things in a court of law.

By Alice’s own admission, her ‘experience’ wasn’t as bad as others in the same position, but before we can even think about all that might entail, she beats us to the punch and acknowledges the ‘elephant in the room’. No, she wasn’t molested and while her kidnapper had been rough with her at the beginning, he left her alone once he felt she wasn’t going to try anything ‘foolish’ like try to escape – accept of course she did. The really surprising admisson though is for a number of complex reasons, she could have escaped quite early on, but decided to stay…

Two-thirds of the way through the play, the penny drops about the location of her pre-teen years and for a short while, one has to the consider the possibility that her time in captivity was spent abroad, adding a layer of complexity to things. As it happens we find out most of her adolescence was spent in the UK, but it’s a testament to the writing that it continues to have the power of surprise throughout and made us consider how ‘narrow’ our way of looking at thinks has been up to that point.

Case in point, the lost years… It’s ‘taken for granted’ that girls learn about how to apply make-up, go shopping for bras and a million other small ‘rites of passage’ to womanhood. These are the things Alice has missed out on and as a young adult, there’s always something about her that will forever be out of step with her surroundings.

Alice admits having undergone therapy to help her ‘fit in’, but in her experience divulging her story has been more traumatic for her listeners than for herself. Which is where we, the audience, come in…

Director Rebecca Gwyther never lets Claustrophilia descend into melodrama, preferring to let the power of Alice’s unfettered words speak for themselves. Occasionally, subtle shifts in lighting and sound hint at a more fragile state of mind, but by and large it is Alice’s pragmatic demeanour in all things that suggests her equanimity came at a cost…

As for the writer, anyone who has seen Westerman’s play Tortoise knows she has a knack for articulating the interior experience and showing for the stage the dichotomy between being ‘well’ and ‘of sound mind’ in public, and the private space where we let our innermost insecurities surface. In the words of Alice: “It takes so much effort to be normal.”

five-stars

© Michael Davis 2017

Claustrophilia ran at the VAULT Festival, London on 17th and 18th February 2017.

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